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Racial words and the value of redemption

At historically black Florida Agricultural and Mechanical University in Tallahassee, 49-year-old Gerald Gee struggles to save his career. Gee is white and has taught journalism at FAMU since 1977. During that time, his students consistently gave him positive evaluations, and he earned the respect of his peers.

Last year, however, the associate professor took a calculated risk and stumbled. In trying to persuade students in a public relations class to stop complaining and to show more enterprise in creating opportunities for themselves, he said that those who weren't self-starting had a "nigger mentality."

In Tampa last week, 39-year-old Stephen M. Crawford, a prominent attorney, resigned from one of the city's most prestigious law firms. His offense was a letter he wrote to a client criticizing a black judge and Florida's black judges in general: "The "word on the street' is that Judge (Henry Lee) Adams is an excellent trial judge, but does not necessarily receive high marks for legal acumen. I have found this to be true for most of the black jurists throughout the state."

Doubtless, these men committed dumb acts. But are they closet racists? Or, are they not-so-innocent victims of the nation's newest epidemic of inflamed sensitivities? The real issue is whether or not people with otherwise exemplary records deserve the workplace equivalent of the death penalty for a first-time comment that many people would consider racially insensitive or, at worst, racist.

The majority of black people and the white liberals I know believe that any white person uttering such a comment, just once, should be axed. Their argument is that such words manifest latent racism. I'm convinced that one-time utterances don't necessarily mean that a person is racist. Each instance is different and should be handled as such.

As a former community college writing teacher, I've known Gee for about 11 years. During that time, I advised all of my black journalism majors to take his classes after they metriculated to FAMU. I did so because he's an all-around competent teacher who's always interacted well with African-American students. None of my former students has ever complained to me about Gee. They've always praised him for being fair, affable and sensitive.

One of my former students, who signed a petition supporting Gee, said: "He should not have used the word "nigger,' but he didn't intend to hurt anyone. He's a great teacher, and I'll take him again if he's teaching next term. He read an apology to the class, and he should've been forgiven _ period. You could see that he was very, very sorry for using that word." Despite Gee's apology, the university wants to fire him.

Crawford, the Tampa attorney, is known as a liberal-to-moderate Democrat with a record of supporting the appointment of black judges. His comments to the press clearly show remorse: "It is probably one of the dumbest things I've ever said. It doesn't in any way reflect my general feelings about race. I've just read it (the letter), and I'm horrified that I said it. . . . I plan to spend more time with my family, my friends and my church. I know that sounds Pollyanna, but I'll land back on my feet."

People who've known Crawford for many years are shocked by his comments. But they also believe that his expression of regret is genuine. After all, nothing in his past indicates that he's a racist.

Neither Gee nor Crawford is an Al Campanis, the former Los Angeles Dodgers executive who told Nightline's Ted Koppel that blacks are mentally incapable of being baseball managers. One difference between Campanis and these men is that he was a major figure in an all-white male club that blatantly discriminated against blacks. His comments were obviously business as usual. Another difference is that Campanis refused to clarify his statements or to apologize after Koppel gave him several chances.

Both Gee and Crawford apologized, however. Even more, I believe that both have learned from their experiences. Although Gee has sued FAMU for reverse discrimination, I have no doubt that he understands the hurt he caused some students. He wants to keep his job and had accepted the dean's recommendation of one year's probation and a letter of reprimand. But the provost and the president want Gee's head on a silver platter.

I believe in redemption. Gee should be permitted to keep his job, to redeem himself. Good people change. He's a good person and he acknowledges his mistake. Also, no one should forget that he's a white man _ a dedicated teacher _ who chose to spend his life among black students. Why? "Many are the first in their families to go to college, and they come here wanting to learn," he told The Wall Street Journal. "They were fun to teach, and I learned a lot, too." Are these the sentiments of an incorrigible racist?

And what about Crawford and his letter? Based on everything my colleagues tell me, he'll spend a lot of time with his pastor. Again, should this promising career crash because of a single, ill-advised statement?

In a letter to this newspaper, the Rev. James A. Harnish, senior pastor of Tampa's United Methodist Church, goes to the heart of the matter: "My personal and pastoral relationships with Mr. Crawford convince me that when he said he was "horrified' by an inappropriate remark in a letter to an out-of-state client, he was being more consistent with his convictions than when he wrote the letter. The letter was the aberration; his distress over it reflects the real man. It does not nullify the track record of his commitment to racial justice and understanding. The pervasive racism of our culture is insidious; it can sneak up on the best of us. It caught Steve this time, but he's one of our city's best and I predict he will be a better man because of it. He already is."

None of us is pure. All of us make mistakes _ some serious enough to ruin our lives. When we judge the words of other people, we should try to be mature, wise. Redemption is essential in civilized life. But ours is becoming a society less willing to understand, less willing to forgive. We're wearing our rights and sensitivities on our sleeves, listening for insults in all speech and mining all written words for reasons to censor.

We use our freedoms so recklessly and covet our individuality so fiercely that we've become a nation of smug, intolerant, overly sensitive strangers who're unwilling to give one another a second chance.

Bill Maxwell is a columnist and editorial writer for the Times.

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